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Some days it seems like Raiford Starke knows half the musicians in South Florida -- and has gigged with the other half. Take, for example, the drizzly Saturday a couple of weeks ago when Starke showed up at Hollywood's Fiesta Tropicale in Young Circle Park. Clad in black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black cap, the bushy-bearded Starke hit the main stage at one in the afternoon, toting an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. At his side was Magda Hiller, a Hollywood-based musician who has spent ten years making a name for herself on the local folk scene. Starke accompanied Hiller's perked-up folk set with blazing guitar leads and feverish harmonica solos.
Next it was off to the tour bus parked backstage for a quick bottle of water before his next gig. He was set to play electric guitar and harmonica in the cover band, the Seminole Swamp Band with Lee Tiger, a Miccosukee musician. As Starke entered the bus, though, he spotted yet another musical compatriot: Blind Willie James, a portly black gospel singer from St. Petersburg. He made a beeline for the couch on which James was sprawled. "Is that Colin?" James asked, sticking his hand out for Starke to shake.
"Yeah," said Starke, responding to his given name with a smile.
"Colin Kenny," James rumbled, pumping Starke's hand. "Listen to me, listen to me," he sang, and laughed. James was alluding to a song Starke wrote in 1984, about a girl with whom he was once smitten. James liked the song so much he added it to his repertoire.
Such is the life of Raiford Starke, a musical journeyman who's been writing and performing music for most of his 38 years. Although more accustomed to playing a supporting role over the years, Starke decided last spring to take a little of the spotlight himself, releasing a stunning solo CD entitled Speak Me. (The CD is available at Peaches in Fort Lauderdale as well as at his shows; he hopes to make it available online soon.)
Starke's vision of releasing an album dates back so far, he originally thought the platter would be vinyl. But it wasn't until the death of his musical compadre and hero, Dicky Wilson, that Starke applied himself to recording an album. Starke took his time recording Speak Me -- which consists of half a dozen Wilson compositions, as well as a few of Starke's own -- laying down tracks for nearly two years at Mirror Image Studio in Gainesville and the Seminole Mobile Studio in Big Cypress.
The album is a delightful survey of genres. It opens with the title track, an upbeat acoustic strummer with a melancholy organ fill that provides the harmonic high end to Starke's smooth, dark baritone. Starke explores the high end of his voice on the countrified "Girl From Immokalee," with sideman Johnny B providing a light, swinging dobro accompaniment. Starke explores the sounds of zydeco on "No Troub Doc," which features the bouncy accordion squonk of Bob Taylor. "Midnight Drive" is a light rockabilly guitar jive with distorted flourishes.
Over the course of the disc, Starke emerges as a musician willing to try his hand at just about anything: blues, country, rock, even bluegrass.
This loose style is what compelled Hiller to enlist Starke as a backing musician, both for live shows and on her new disc, Delicate Cycle. "I liken his playing to kids coloring in a coloring book," she says. "He doesn't color inside the lines. He doesn't play it safe."
Hiller says unpredictability is the key to his fretwork. "He takes risks that a lot of other players won't take for fear of hitting a bum note or something," she notes. "I love the life in his playing. It's completely different to anyone that I've played with."
Lee Tiger, who has collaborated with Starke for six years, concurs. "His playing is very easy to flow with," he says. "His heart is really into it. It's just part of the thing of music that is magic. I get a charge out of playing with him. He's very skilled in his guitar work, but he also has a lot of heart. He's down to earth. He gets his message out. He has the magic to be able to do that."
In fact Starke has been working his magic for 20 years. He grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, where he started performing "with a bunch of old guys that played Johnny Cash and stuff." He left Falls Church for Treasure Island, Florida, in the early '80s, where he eventually met Dicky Wilson at an open-mic night at a local biker bar.
The two eventually hit the road together, making money working on oil fields in east Texas while collaborating on a band called Cottonmouth. The band lasted until 1985, when Starke got fed up with the drugging and drinking of the other band members. Starke, however, maintained his friendship with Wilson.
In the late '80s, Starke found himself back in Florida, building chickee huts in Big Cypress for the entrepreneurial Seminole Indian Chief Jim Billie. Chief Billie was also a singer and guitarist, who made use of Starke's talent in his backing band. The group performed a style of music Starke coins "swamp rock," a mixture of jam rock and bayou funk.
In 1991 Starke joined a band in the Keys called Big Dick and the Extenders, who were in need of a guitarist. They were a rock band fronted by a Cherokee Indian who was six and a half feet tall, weighed more than 300 pounds, and called himself Big Dick. "A friend of mine urged me to get in that band," Starke recalls. "He told me, 'You better go down there, because that guy's a legend. It's a steady gig, and you'll be making money.' We did Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd, Motown. The guy also did a few Tom Jones songs 'cause he could sing just like Tom Jones, man."
Starke originally thought it would be a one-month gig, but the band was such a success he found himself living in the Keys for two and a half years. "We were a house band at this club," he says. "I was working six nights a week, for four hours straight, every night. After two and a half years, it had run its course for me."
Starke returned to Broward in 1994. He found a niche in Fort Lauderdale, where he could return to playing the country music he had played as a teenager. While performing with country bands in trucker bars and Moose lodges, he was invited back out to Big Cypress, once again to play in Chief Billie's backing band. The work was plentiful. Chief Billie recorded a couple of albums and even staged a few tours.
All the while Starke continued to play with other artists. Chief Billy introduced Starke to Tiger. The two started playing oldies and classic rock covers, with drummer John Yarling, giving birth to the Seminole Swamp Band. Starke also joined a Southern-rock outfit, influenced by the Meters and the Neville Brothers, called the Shack Daddys. He has been a regular lead-guitar player in the Shack Daddys for six years now, and even took part in the recording of their self-titled debut album, released in the spring of last year.
Starke's career flourished in Broward. But he couldn't find time to record his solo album. The inspiration finally came with the passing of Wilson, in 1996. Starke says he has always admired Wilson's songs and was disappointed that Wilson never recorded any of them. So he created Speak Me as a way of celebrating his departed mentor.
The players Starke recruited to back him on Speak Me -- who include Michael Cole on guitar, Jeff "Apt. Q258" Sipe on drums, and Count M'Butu on various percussion -- have played with jam bands such as Col. Bruce Hampton, Aquarium Rescue Unit, and the Allman Brothers. But Starke won't deny that the most important musician on the album is Wilson, whose picture adorns the CD. A shirtless, tattooed man, his face wrinkled and puffed with wear, stands below a fishing net, on a shrimp boat that looks out over a cerulean sea, below an azure sky.
"It's kind of a bittersweet thing, releasing a CD like this with some of his tunes on there," Starke says. "On the one hand, it's great to see his music being done. On the other hand, it's kind of sad because I wish he would have been around to do it. It's a tribute to him. The guy was part of my soul."